Black Catholics Struggle for Recognition Despite Their Long History in the Church

Celina Okpaleke conducts a choir singing traditional African songs during an African Mass at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Tampa on Nov. 10. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

The Rev. Stephan Brown traces his family’s lineage as Catholics to his great, great grandfather.

“We have three ordained clergy,” he says, counting himself, a priest, and his father and brother, who are deacons.

Brown, 55, pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in St. Petersburg and former assistant to the president for ministry at Saint Leo University, bristles at the fact that little is known about blacks in the Catholic Church.

“The first Catholics outside of Jerusalem were African,” he said, referring to the Ethiopian eunuch in the Bible who was baptized by Phillip. “Before the slave trade, there were already black Catholics in Africa.”

Historians say there were black Catholics in the early days of Florida’s St. Augustine. “In fact, on the first page of the 16th-century baptismal registers are the names of black infants who were baptized into the Body of Christ along with white infants in St. Augustine Church,” wrote the late Benedictine monk and black Catholic historian Father Cyprian Davis in the August 2002 issue of U.S. Catholic.

African-American Catholics, Davis lamented, “have been too often the forgotten factor in the history of the American church.”

November is Black Catholic History Month, an opportunity to learn and share that story. In the Tampa Bay area, the Diocese of St. Petersburg, with parishes in Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Hillsborough and Citrus counties, planned two events to mark the occasion. About 1 to 1.5 percent of the region’s close to half-million Catholics are black.

Celina Okpaleke, coordinator of African Catholic Ministry in the diocese, helped to organize an African Mass that was celebrated on Nov. 10 at St. Peter Claver, a predominantly black parish in Tampa. For Okpaleke, originally from Nigeria, the Mass featuring the music, languages, clothing and dancing from African countries, was an opportunity “to encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ to come and enjoy a different type of celebration in our Catholic faith.”

But it also was for fellow Africans who may have abandoned the faith since leaving their homelands, said Okpaleke, who also is a regional coordinator for the National Association of African Catholics. “There are a lot of African Catholics all over the place. … In the process of coming here, they have decided to join different denominations because they don’t know who or what to contact,” said Okpaleke, who worships at St. Stephen’s in Riverview. “Part of our goal is to bring them back to the Catholic Church. Our way of worship is different. They feel they don’t belong.”

The Rev. Theo Weria of St. Peter Claver is from Tanzania and spoke of worship traditions in East Africa. “We put more emotion into it,” he said. “Where I come from, everyone participates. People know all of the songs.”

Dale Brown, coordinator for Black Catholic Ministry in the diocese — she’s not related to the Rev. Stephan Brown at St. Joseph’s — is a member at St. Peter Claver, where African-Americans worship alongside Catholics from the Caribbean and Africa.

“At St. Peter Claver, we always make sure that we do something” for Black Catholic History Month, she said. Brown, who grew up in a Catholic family in New Orleans, said the month established in 1990 by the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States holds several dates that are important to black Catholics. Among them is Nov. 3, the feast day of St. Martin de Porres of Peru, the first black saint. The birthday of St. Augustine of Hippo, who was born in North Africa, falls on Nov. 13.

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Source: Tampa Bay Times